The championship Strand course at Portstewart in County Londonderry is one of the finest links in all of Ireland.
Portstewart sometimes gets a bad rap for having just nine good holes (the front nine) along with an inferior back-nine. Now, this is true to a certain extent but I’d like to clarify and put it into context by saying that the front nine is rivetingly magnificent and the inward half still exceptionally good.
Having originally been founded in 1894 then redesigned by Willie Park Jnr in the 1920’s the Strand Links received its greatest makeover with the purchase of duneland known as “Thistly Hollow” in 1986. The seven new holes (2 thru to 8) were created by a member of the club, Des Giffin, who whilst knowledgeable on the subject was entirely inexperienced in golf course design.
These new holes provide some big dune golf over natural, rugged linksland in what is a tempestuous passage of golf. They are indeed superb and tagged alongside the glorious opening hole, played from a lofty tee to a fairway far below, and the rising ninth, with a steep drop-off at the front, you undoubtedly have one of the best and wildest nine holes of golf on the planet. A member of over 50-years, who caddied for one of our group, informed me that two more holes, located in the dunes, are currently in the pipeline.
The tee-shot on the first is one of the most enjoyable in golf for sure. On a fine day you will see a line of cars parked along The Strand – a near two-mile stretch of sandy beach – and steep dunes to the right which were a shooting location for a scene from Game of Thrones.
If you are a dune-junkie you will be in golfing heaven on the front-nine. Each hole either plays through, round or over the dunes and the green locations are superb. The fairways, often of which you are only granted a slither from the tee, are equally undulating and tie in nicely with everything else.
The 2nd is a particularly fine hole with just a glimpse of the split-level fairway before you play up to a shelf green nestled in the dunes. The 4th is a wonderful par-five through a natural valley whilst the green at the 5th is a sight to behold; large, undulating and located superbly. The diddy 6th gives us a break from big-hitting but the upturned saucer nature of the green requires an accurate short-iron. The long 7th also has a wonderful green location with a precarious narrow entrance and a treacherous drop-off to the right. Meanwhile, the 8th is a sharp 90-degree dog-leg with a green falling off the side of a dune and one of the more undulating putting surfaces.
The front-side at Portstewart is quirk on a big scale and something absolutely special. Each hole is completely unique and Giffin, a local schoolteacher, was probably in the wrong profession at the time because the routing and design is superb.
The back-nine makes a somewhat inauspicious start with a green complex at the 10th which is rather uninspiring but the course quickly recovers and whilst we have mostly left the towering sandhills behind us, and now play on relatively flatter ground close to the River Bann, the terrain is still good for golf and there are some wonderful holes over sweetly undulating ground.
The round quickly recovers at the excellent 11th and although the short 12th and the subsequent back-to-back par-fives are not the greatest they are solid holes, especially the latter. What is not in doubt are the finishing four holes and the test they provide. The 15th is a bigger version of the irresistible 6th whilst the final three holes all top the 400-yard mark and with the daunting pulpit green at the 17th make for a championship finish; one that Jon Rahm eased through on his way to victory in the 2017 Irish Open.
From the tee Portstewart is challenging but infinitely playable and certainly not unfair. Into the greens it is a highly demanding course. You only have to be a little bit off with your iron play to suffer some serious consequences. It can at times be a cruel master.
At Portstewart you mostly play through mighty dunes to raised greens; some benched into the actual dunes, others raised with steep drop-offs but all with deep pot bunkers waiting to gather even just a slightly wayward approach. Most of the greens have a slant and tie in well with their surrounds. I personally love these types of holes… my only criticism is that there are perhaps too many here…. too much of a good thing!
The course (par 72, 7,118-yards) overall doesn’t cut the same mustard as neighbouring Portrush or Royal County Down, a couple of hours away at Newcastle, but it is a comfortable third (ahead of Castlerock) in Northern Ireland and at times does match the exceedingly high quality of the top two.
There are two other courses attached to Portstewart; the Riverside and the Old Course. In truth neither is worth going out of your way to play unless you are desperate for a game of golf in which case they serve a purpose.
The Riverside layout is located adjacent to the Strand (some of the holes and land used to be form part of the main course) and the start and finish, which is played over authentic linksland land is good. The final three holes are actually excellent and provide a stirring finish but this comes far too late to save itself.
The remainder is largely forgettable and although well presented it isn’t really links golf and is a bit up-and-down on softer terrain where ditches and even a pond make an appearance. At times it reminded me a touch of the Strathtyrum course, or even the back-nine on the Eden, at St. Andrews.
As the name suggests it is played close to the River Bann and is a very clean layout; generous from the tee, not long on the card (max 5,498 yards, par 67) with shallow bunkers and whilst not totally geared for beginner golf it is a tame affair.
The greens ran superbly though and had a nice pace with a very true roll. I have played courses of much higher esteem and wished the surfaces had been as good.
The Old Course, often referred to as the ‘Town’ course is not actually located at the main Portstewart Golf Club. It is a couple of miles away on the other side of the town and is a Jekyll & Hyde affair (4,890 yards, par 65).
The first five and last three holes traverse a tiny strip of genuine linksland and whilst they do not offer great golf they provide a miniature version of the real deal albeit in a rudimentary fashion. They are played close to the shore and have all the intricacies, humps, bumps and hollows that make my eyes light up when I am playing this type of golf. Great fun!
However, after playing the fifth you must cross the main coastal road and your heart literally sinks.
I can only describe the next ten holes as mind-numbingly awful golf. You have left the linksland well and truly behind and now play to circular greens cut into the fairway, with arrow straight meadowland fairways and even the odd chocolate drop mounding.
I know not the history of the course (and shame on me because I have no intent on researching it) but it fucking annoys me so much when additional holes like this are built just so that an “18-hole” layout can be created. The Old Course at Portstewart would be a much better 8-hole layout offering charm, fun and a rollicking good hour on the links.
It's a long time since I've walked off a golf course and been as impressed and surprised, compared to what I was expecting, than at Newbiggin.
A family holiday brought me to Whitby Golf Club. After stuffing myself with fish & chips, losing most of my money on the penny slots and catching umpteen crabs in the harbour it was time for a round of golf!
Planning a round of golf in late October can be a dicey affair, especially in my home county of Yorkshire where the vast majority of courses are built on heavy soil or clay, so it was very refreshing to discover when venturing down south how well East Berkshire played at this time of year.